By Spencer S. Hsu and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Jin Ju Yoo, a stay-at-home mother who immigrated from South Korea in 1990 and applied for U.S. citizenship in 2002, would seem a minimal security risk. So say friends in Clarksburg, Md., where Yoo, 36, plays drums at a Presbyterian church and raises three children with her husband, a flooring contractor. Her husband and children are citizens.
The would-be American is still waiting for approval, however, because the FBI has not completed a security check of her name against its more than 86 million investigative files. Neither the bureau nor the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency will say why.
Since 2005, the backlog of legal U.S. immigrants whose applications for naturalization and other benefits are stuck on hold awaiting FBI name checks has doubled to 329,160, prompting a flood of lawsuits in federal courts, bureaucratic finger-pointing in Washington and tough scrutiny by 2008 presidential candidates.
At a time when Congress is intensely focused on border security, the growing backlog is one of the most visible signs of the U.S. immigration system's breakdown, current and former government officials said.
Unexplained delays in determining whether longtime residents pose a threat promise neither justice to the applicants nor added security to the country, they said. They blame bureaucratic mismanagement and poor coordination at the FBI and the immigration service, and the inefficient methods of screening files for genuine security threats.
In his annual report to Congress last week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) ombudsman Prakash I. Khatri called the backlog of FBI name checks "unacceptable from the standpoint of national security and immigration benefits processing."
Calling the delays the "most pervasive problem" in processing, Khatri concluded that they "may increase the risk to national security by prolonging the time a potential criminal or terrorist remains in the country." He concluded that the agency should end or sharply narrow its use of name checks.
As Dawn Lurie, a Vienna immigration lawyer, put it: "If there's a security reason [for the delay], then what are those people still doing here? . . . And if there isn't a security reason, then why are we making them wait for so long?"
The withholding of citizenship -- and the continuation of the attendant restrictions on voting, employment, travel, reunification with family members, and access to credit and federal assistance programs -- replicates on a far vaster and more damaging scale the inconvenience rendered to travelers who are mistakenly placed on no-fly lists because of spelling confusions or errors, civil liberties lawyers said.
Some lawyers warn that such burdens may be discriminatory if they fall disproportionately on people perceived to be from Muslim countries or from ethnic groups whose names are transliterated from non-Roman alphabets. But others representing individuals in the Washington area or participating in four national class-action lawsuits over the delays say the most distinctive -- and frustrating -- feature is their seeming randomness, and the refusal of agencies to say when checks will be done or why problems have arisen.
Seong Ho Kang, 40, a computer engineer from South Korea who lives in Centreville, has waited for more than a year for his FBI check, possibly because the bureau since 2001 has intensified the scrutiny of immigrants with high-technology backgrounds. In frustration, Kang submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any records the FBI might have on him. The bureau promptly replied that it had none. "If they can tell that to me, why can't they tell it to immigration?" Kang asked.
Donald Kerr, 60, the Jamaican-born lead singer of the Wailers, Bob Marley's reggae group, applied for U.S. citizenship more than three years ago after marrying a U.S. citizen. Kerr, a British citizen who goes by the stage name Junior Marvin, lives in Alexandria. "I'm not trying to put Homeland Security down. I mean, they have to do what they have to do," he said, sitting in his basement amid a mass of guitars, amplifiers and sound-mixing equipment. "But it does seem like a long time to check up on a musician."
The backlog started growing after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when investigators determined that a failure to properly process immigration applications contributed to the hijackers' ability to enter and stay in the country. U.S. authorities responded by broadly expanding background checks.
FBI name checks, in particular, were intensified after errors and a lack of cooperation between the FBI and immigration authorities in Newark led to the October 2002 naturalization of a man suspected of ties to Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist group. A policy decision was made to check applicants' names not only against the list of individuals under investigation by the FBI but also against the list of those named in investigative files for any reason.
The result was tumultuous. At the end of 2002, immigration authorities resubmitted 2.7 million names of applicants to the FBI for additional scrutiny. More than five years later, the FBI is only now emerging from that huge load, with about 5,800 names left to be rechecked.
But FBI officials say a heavy workload is not the only problem. They also blame inadequate staffing and technology, as well as a decentralized, paper-based process of status review.
About 90 percent of name checks, officials say, emerge with no matches within three months, after an automated search of databases. But the remaining 10 percent can take months or years, as 30 analysts and assistants must coordinate with 56 field offices and retrieve files stored in 265 locations nationwide.
As a result, the FBI has fallen further behind on the 1.5 million new names it receives each year from USCIS. Of about 329,000 cases pending as of May, 64 percent were stalled for more than 90 days, 32 percent for more than one year and 17 percent for more than two years.
"No one is happy with the status quo," said USCIS Deputy Director Jonathan "Jock" Scharfen. "We share the public's unhappiness with this, and we're committed to improving the process."
"We're trying to automate this as much as possible," said Michael Cannon, head of the FBI's National Name Check Program. He said the section's disruptive move from Washington to Frederick County, Va., also hindered work in 2006.
Cannon said the completion of a new Central Records System and progress toward a long-delayed, $600 million FBI computerized case-management system will help. "I can't give you a date certain when all this is going to come to fruition. My best guess is 2010," he said.
USCIS officials say they are reviewing their procedures but remain committed to detailed checks, which they call an effective tool in identifying security threats and verifying eligibility for citizenship. Even just a few terrorists can wreak havoc, the program's supporters note.
While USCIS declined to provide the number or percentage of annual name checks that result in denials, the FBI has reported that less than 1 percent of 1.5 million names are ultimately tied to potentially damaging information.
The backlog appears likely to get worse, because a USCIS fee increase -- slated to take effect in July -- has prompted a 50 percent rise in new naturalization applications so far this year. If a new immigration bill is enacted, millions of undocumented immigrants would also apply for legalization.
Frustrations among applicants have helped stoke a fourfold increase in litigation against USCIS since the middle of 2006. Critics emphasize that applicants for naturalization, by definition, are longtime residents who have lived and worked in the United States with few restrictions.
Khatri, in his June 11 report, said that given other automated security checks, "the protection the FBI name check provides, the cost of government resources used, and mental and actual hardships to applicants and their families, USCIS should reassess the continuation of its policy."
For now, tens of thousands of legal residents remain in limbo, exacting a toll on them and their employers. Pavel Kroupnik, a Russian economist who came to the United States in 1991 and sought citizenship three years ago, works at the nuclear energy firm USEC Inc. in Bethesda and directs the conversion of weapons-grade uranium from Russian nuclear warheads into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants -- a key U.S.-Russian nonproliferation effort.
But Kroupnik, 46, a Rockville resident, has been unable to get a security clearance and fuller responsibilities because he is not a citizen, even though his employer had conducted its own two-year investigation of his background before hiring him. "When immigration said we need to do a background check, I said, 'Guys, check your own [files].' The CIA, the FBI, the KGB -- they all know who I am and what I'm doing," Kroupnik said.
Adriana Rivera, a Mexican-born housecleaner living in Woodbridge, has been stymied in a different way: She cannot see her elderly parents in Veracruz, Mexico, because she holds a temporary work permit and would be unable to return if she left the United States while awaiting the background check she needs to become a legal permanent resident.
Her husband sailed through his background check and obtained a green card nearly two years ago even though he applied at the same time as Rivera.
"Every time my husband goes back to visit Mexico, I cry because I can't go with him," Rivera said. "I miss my family so much. It's a feeling of desperation."